Last of the Monster Kids

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Thursday, February 25, 2016

OSCARS 2016: The 2016 Oscar-Nominated Animated Shorts

I like cartoons. Any long-time readers of the blog will know this already. Unlike the Best Animated Features category, which is usually filled out by studio fair and one or two indie efforts, the Animated Shorts are usually smaller productions. Produced by filmmakers outside of America or by emerging talent, the shorts contain their share of surprises.

Over the past three years, the Animated and Live Action shorts have been packaged separately. I order the shorts through my cable provider, which is the easiest way for me to see them. For some reason, this year, both categories were packaged together. This meant two of the animated shorts were excised and none of the Highly Commended shorts were included. Luckily, I was still able to see the other nominated shorts.

Bear Story 
Historia de un oso

Hailing from Chile, “Bear Story” follows an elderly bear living alone in an apartment. During the day, he lugs a mechanical box into town. After catching the attention of a young customer, the bear winds a crank and activates an elaborate puppet show inside the box. There, we see the story of a bear being abducted by a mob-like circus, forced to perform under threats of violence. Eventually, the bear escapes captivity and returns to his family. After the puppet show ends, the bear goes back to his empty apartment.

“Bear Story” is quite visually inventive. The story is brought to life by computer generated graphics. Since the bulk of the film is made up of mechanical marionettes enacting a story, that brings in a totally different visual angle than what we’re used to seeing in CGI. Watching the different gears crank up and platforms unfold is interesting. The film also tells a deeply sad story. In the bear’s puppet show, the hero is reunited with his wife and child. In real life, he’s alone. The author often corrects the wrongs of his real life in his fiction. “Historia de un oso” may also be a political allegory, as the jag-booted, thug-like circus manager brings certain connotations. The interesting animation and touching story makes it worth seeing. [7/10]

World of Tomorrow

Of all the nominated shorts, “World of Tomorrow” is the most hyped. Not only is it easily the best received film of these nominees, some critics even listed it as one of the best films of last year. “World of Tomorrow” follows a toddler named Emily, who is contacted by a version of herself from the future. Actually, it’s a third generation clone of herself as, in the future, people are impregnated with clones of themselves. In extended detail, the older Emily explains many of the odd, strange changes of the future while exploring her own journey.

Maybe the hype didn’t help but I was mostly baffled by “World of Tomorrow.” The short film has roughly ten thousand ideas. There’s the issue of cloning, memory, and the value of love and human life. The future Emily explains an art installation about a clone body being placed in a glass box, aging in real time. She discusses the Outer-Net, an advanced, physical internet where people can interact with their own thoughts. In the future, rich people have their consciousness transferred into computerized boxes, which seems to inevitably drive them insane. She explains the perils of time travel and space travel. During her tenure as a robot manager on the moon, she discusses programming machines to have a fear of death. Future-Emily also flirts with objectophilia, falling in love with both a moon rock and a utility box. Also, Earth is doomed, as a giant meteor is headed on a collision course with the planet.

That’s a lot to unpack in seventeen minutes. “World of Tomorrow” briefly pauses to consider some of these ideas but it's mostly too busy being endlessly inventive. The short also has an abrasive sense of humor. Little Emily clearly doesn’t grasp what her older clone is saying, often responding how you’d expect a little child to respond to such things. Sometimes this produces laughs. More often, it produces confusion. Such as an extended sequence devoted to an annoying creature Emily befriends while in outer space. “World of Tomorrow’s” minimalist animation is interesting and the short clearly has a lot on its mind. Yet I feel this probably should have been a book instead of a movie, where its countless ideas – about the future, about life – could have been more fully explored. [7/10]


After the heady plotting of “World of Tomorrow,” “Prologue” has such a simple story that it’s nearly plotless. Two pairs of Spartan and Athenian solders meet on the battle field. The Spartans are entirely nude, save for their swords and shields. The Athenians attack with bows and arrows. What follows is a brutal battle between the four men, all of them being struck down by blades and arrowheads.

With such a threadbare story, “Prologue” is instead a technical exercise. And it’s a fairly impressive one at that. The film studies the conflict in a very intimate fashion, focusing on the faces of the combatants. The camera whirls around the battle field, making the length of a sword as long as a road, pushing in and out on the soldiers’ bodies. The short is animated in such a way as to resemble hand-drawn sketches leaping to life. The effect is striking, bringing both an element of stillness and an incredible sense of motion. The violence in “Prologue” is brutal, often emphasized by the frontal male nudity. Since the short is primarily black and white, the red of the blood immediately draws the eye. The strike of the swords and arrows have a visceral impact, especially the squeamish way the final solider is dispatched. While I’m not entirely sure what it all means, “Prologue” is definitely a memorable experience. [7/10]

Sanjay’s Super Team

I was a fan of Pixar’s “The Good Dinosaur” but even I’ll concede to the consensus that the proceeding short, “Sanjay’s Super Team,” was superior. While Sanjay’s devout, calm father kneels at his prayer box, Sanjay watches a superhero cartoon on TV. Father and son soon come into conflict, Sanjay’s dad demanding silence while he prayers. Forced to sit with his father, Sanjay imagines a vivid fantasy, where the gods his dad prays to transforms into superheroes of their own.

Visually, “Sanjay’s Super Team” nicely combines computer-generated and traditional animation. Sanjay’s superhero cartoon is animated in 2D and, when his father’s icons leap to life inside Sanjay’s mind, they’re animated in a similar fashion. As an action cartoon, “Sanjay’s Super Team” is pretty cool. The smoky monster tossing blades and staffs are cleverly deflected by the superhero-ized gods. (I know enough about Hinduism to recognize Vishnu and Hanuman but I’m not sure who the female is suppose to be.) Sanjay’s scenario – re-imaging something that bores him as something that interest him – is a common habit of childhood, from what I remember. “Sanjay’s Super Team” is also a  touching story of a son and father finding common ground between their two beliefs. It’s touching without being sappy, exciting and fun to watch. Really my only criticism is the character designs of Sanjay and his dad, who have weirdly large heads. [7/10]

We Can’t Live Without Cosmos
Mi ne mozhem zhit bez kosmosa

“We Can’t Live Without Cosmos” isn’t included in the Short Film package seemingly because its rights holders have made it freely available online. The short follows two astronauts-in-training, who are as close as any friends can be. They race down the halls on each others' backs, finish the swimming trials at the same times, and goof around at the lunch table together. Before lights out, each night, they jump up and down on their beds, trying to launch themselves into orbit. Going into space is a childhood dream for both of them. Their commitment to their goal has them succeeding in the space program. One of the men is selected to pilot a rocket into space, the other being the reserve cosmonaut. When something goes wrong with the mission, it forces one half of the duo to reconsider his life decisions.

“We Can’t Live Without Cosmos” is both funny and heart-breaking. It’s amusing that men as seemingly serious as astronauts would have the child-like glee the characters in this film do. Despite being the best men for the job, their goofy antics still get them in trouble with their superiors. The movie also does an excellent job of showing how important this goal is for them. They’ve built their entire life around becoming astronauts. It’s not difficult to see that this brotherhood will be severed by the story’s events. The film conveys the loss and sadness with the same light touch as the rest of the story. The ending moves into a different direction, becoming an exploration of grief, depression, and ultimately escape. “We Can’t Live Without Cosmos” is not the flashiest of the nominated shorts but it is easily my favorite. [8/10]

Pixar tends to dominate in the animation categories. If “Sanjay’s Super Team” wins best short, I won’t be upset. As with the live action nominees, all of the shorts this year are pretty good. Once again, I’m happy to see a mixture of styles, traditional animation and CGI co-existing next to each other, big studios like Pixar being lauded alongside independent filmmakers like Don Hertzfeldt. Truthfully, a win for any of these films is a win for ingenuity and creativity.

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